My name is Olemaun Pokiak — that’s OO-lee-mawn — but some of my classmates used to call me “Fatty Legs.” They called me that because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous. But I put an end to it. How? Well, I am going to let you in on a secret that I have kept for more than 60 years: the secret of how I made those stockings disappear. (p. 1)
So begins what is possibly Canada’s most popular children’s book on the residential schools, Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s extraordinary Fatty Legs. Margaret is, in fact, Olemaun; Margaret was what she was called at school, but she was born Olemaun Pokiak, an Inuvialuit child who grew up with her family on the islands north of the arctic circle.
Fatty Legs is in the odd position of being both biography and autobiography; non-fiction yet fictionalized. Despite this unusual dichotomy, Fatty Legs is possibly the most graceful accounts of the cultural (and sometimes just plain literal) genocide known as Canada’s residential school system, during which Indigenous (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) children were taken from their families in Canada. The first residential school in Canada opened in 1863. The last closed in 1996. Attendance was at first optional, if strongly encouraged; eventually, attendance became mandatory: children were forcibly taken from their homes and parents were threatened with imprisonment if they resisted.
Olemaun Pokiak was one of the last students, at least in her region, to have a choice about attending school. Here is what the back cover has to say:
Margaret begs her father to let her go to the outsiders’ school. Before finally relenting, he warns her: as water wears rock smooth, her spirit will be worn down and made small.
Margaret soon encounters the Raven — an nun with a hoked nose and bony, claw-like fingers. Raven immediately disapproves of the strong-willed young girl. To prove her dislike, the Raven passes out gray stockings to all except Margaret, who receives red ones. In an instant Margaret is the laughingstock of the school.
Now she must face her tormentor.
Against the backdrop of colonization and the unimaginable cruelty of increasing settler (outsider) restrictions on Indigenous life, which culminated in the residential schools, designed to separate children from their families, heritage, traditional skills, language, and land, Fatty Legs is the true story of one resourceful Inuvialuit girl who manages a measure of triumph against a bullying teacher who punishes Margaret on any pretext and encourages other students to turn on her as well. It is an excellent introduction to the residential school system: the story is told in a way that gives younger readers a taste of the injustice Olemaun experienced without overburdening them. Olemaun’s courage and determination are abundantly evident in her narrative voice, and the wickedness of the Raven is leavened with Olemaun’s sense of humour.
Older readers will recognize the gaps Olemaun leaves in her account and the experiences implied through few words and careful absences: the many petty instances of spite that are passed over in a few sentences, the hunger and malnourishment that are alluded to in only a few scenes, the perils of an outbreak of smallpox during which Olemaun is made to serve in the hospital.
Olemaun describes the people at the school using bird comparisons: the Raven, the Swan (a kind nun), herself as a wren who has been plucked and carried away to a nest, which is the school. Again, this technique, or perhaps I should say perspective, creates a carefully layered story. The touch of almost-fantasy sets the horror at a remove for younger readers. Older readers may begin to wonder about the relationship between stories — whether fantastical or real — and truth. “It’s like a story” — sometimes it is only through stories, literally factual or not, that we are able to examine things that true and too painful, too vast, to think about otherwise. This story is true; it is also true that it is one piece of a larger story, that of Olemaun (Margaret), whose own full story is part of the even larger story of generations of Indigenous children in Canada. Olemaun’s narrative is one way to make manageable, make thinkable, what is otherwise too immense an enormity.
Olemaun intended to stay at school for only one year, but a short summer and early ice trapped her family in the north and her at school for second year.
That night I had a nightmare. I dreamed I was locked beneath the Raven’s habit with many other children. She cackled and laughed as we tried to break free, straining against its weight, knowing that we would never see our parents again. (p. 54)
The narrative troubles the assumed connection between knowledge and understanding/compassion. The Raven speaks Inuvialuktun, but she is cruel. Olemaun’s quest to learn how to read succeeds, but at too high a cost; she loses what she already has at home.
But I haven’t touched yet on the charm of the story! It is a wonder. The first page catches you. Every subsequent page adds: normal family life in the far north; loving parents; 7-year-old Olemaun’s incomprehension and her older half-sister Rosie’s inability to explain that school is not a good thing; the masterpiece that is Olemaun’s father’s explanation of what school will do to her (yet another layered passage: older readers will catch the whole nightmare of what he describes, while younger readers will see literal facts that can be dealt with, one by one, as Olemaun herself does); the shock of the Raven’s culturally arrogant assumptions about Olemaun’s parents and education; the friendship between Agnes and Olemaun; each day unfolding at school and, finally, at home — and then back again.
The pages are punctuated with notes to help with comprehension, including pieces of history and vocabulary definitions, and by miniature insets of photographs which are collected in “Olemaun’s Scrapbook” at the end of the story. The illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes are gentle, almost impressionist, and full of emotion.